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Managing Study Abroad

January 16, 2008

A new report on “Strengthening Study Abroad” from NAFSA: Association of International Educators is billed as “a report of presidents and provosts to presidents and provosts.”

“We’re really engaging institutional leadership at the top,” said Marlene M. Johnson, executive director and CEO of NAFSA. “The premise of this report is that study abroad is an integral part of the academic program. It should not be treated as an accessory, and therefore it does require institutional commitment, both organizationally and financially.”

The report from NAFSA’s Task Force on Institutional Management of Study Abroad cites the rapid recent growth in study abroad – with the number of Americans studying abroad for credit increasing from 84,000 to more than 220,000 in the past decade. Amid that growth, the task force notes that “higher education institutions vary substantially in the degree to which they have committed to the advancement of study abroad as part of their internationalization efforts.”

“Most, if not all, institutions express support for the idea of study abroad, but for some there is a gap between words of support and the actual student experience,” the report notes.

Johnson said presidents and provosts can use the report as a guide to locate their colleges on that continuum of institutional commitment and, regardless of where they stand, stimulate greater support for study abroad. Generally speaking, and in a nod to the diversity of American higher education, the 14-page report shies away from offering specific suggestions or promoting best practices. It instead offers a broad framework of 14 issues campus leaders should consider in four main areas: institutional commitment, study abroad infrastructure, adequate resources, and clarity and accountability.

“The principles are overarching and pretty much apply across institutions," said John K. Hudzik, chair of the task force and vice president of global engagement and strategic projects at Michigan State University. "But how those principles come to be operationalized needs to be considered by each institution.”

Among the recommendations: that, financially speaking, the study abroad office, like any other, should receive direct institutional support; that a strong, faculty-driven approach for course approval and credit transfer should be in place, and that programs should be regularly evaluated and correspondingly improved. (On this point, the report notes that colleges seeking guidance might get some from outside providers, who often have “publicly available evaluation protocols.")

The task force also recommends that colleges develop financial aid policies with an eye toward facilitating study abroad regardless of student need, and that, "as in any business relationship," clear contracting and auditing procedures, including conflict of interest policies, should be in place.

Here, some context is key: The NAFSA task force formed in August amid widespread scrutiny of potential conflicts of interest in study abroad and a series of subpoenas from New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office. In the report, task force members largely avoid making prescriptive recommendations relative to some of the practices that came under fire -- such as “familiarization” trips to study abroad sites at the expense of providers, cash-back relationships with outside providers, and service on providers’ advisory boards -- but stress that arrangements with third-party providers should expand student options, not limit them.

“Some institutions may selectively choose program providers for health and safety, program quality, or other reasons,” the task force’s report states. “However, arrangements with outside providers should never have the effect of limiting students’ other options for study abroad where these other options meet institutional standards for health, safety, and program quality.”

“There is a theme of transparency in this report,” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, one of six major higher education associations that endorsed the NAFSA report (McPherson also served as chair of the Lincoln Commission, a panel that in 2005 recommended a national goal of increasing American study abroad participation to one million in 10 years).

“On third-party providers, for example, you should be able to explain those relationships. They should be public; they should be known. I always felt as president of a university at Michigan State, if I couldn’t explain it, I probably shouldn’t do it. I think that’s a good way of running an institution that has a public purpose," McPherson said.

“The study abroad experience has to be for students.”

 

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